December 17, 2018: Holy Geminids! and Comet 46P/Wompwomp

Banner photo credit:  Jon Greif

Just a quick post about the Geminid meteor shower and Comet 46P/Wirtanen.  Thursday night, December 13, we got out to the Denver Astronomical Society’s dark site, about 60 miles east of town.  Thursday was the peak night of the shower.  It was actually cloudy when we left, but the forecast was that it was supposed to be clear, and we’re optimists, so what the hey, right?

We set up around 10:30pm, meaning, I pulled out a folding lounge chair, you know, the kind you use by the pool.  I laid down (lay? lain? ah, who cares) and took in a view of the entire eastern sky.  Even though the clouds had cleared (except in the west), there was still some haze clinging to the horizon.

Wow, talk about a shower!  This one really lived up to its billing.  At one point, it seemed like all I had to do was to change my gaze from Orion to Auriga to Perseus to Canis Major and I’d see another meteor every single time I shifted my view.  I felt like if this were an actual shower, I would have gotten wet, heh heh.

Even though I “only” counted up to about 75 – and lost count more than a few times because there were so many! – in the hour from 10:30 to 11:30 (which, although it was the peak night of the shower, wasn’t the peak time of the shower – that was supposed to be around 2am), it just seemed to be so much more active than the Perseids, which were still a very respectable 50 an hour from the same dark site.  However, this was, without question, hands down, THE BEST METEOR SHOWER I have ever seen. Maybe breaking that “one per minute” barrier just seems to make it seem so much more of a shower than if they’re just a little less frequent.

I found it fascinating that Gemini is just one constellation removed from Perseus – Auriga is in between them.  Yet the Perseid meteor shower, which was fully five months ago, back in August, was in basically the same part of the sky.

Unfortunately, in the frigid 15-degree temperature, an hour was just about our limit for lying motionless in the cold.  This was so even though we had bundled up a lot, and had hand warmers in our gloves.  A stay in the club’s on-site warming hut only served to thaw out our toes nicely, but didn’t really remove the deep chill.  After 10 more minutes standing around in the cold – I looked west and saw a few meteors clear on the other side of the sky, over in Cassiopeia and Andromeda! –  we were done for the night.  15 degrees is just too friggin’ cold.


The comet, well, that’s another story.  The so-called “Christmas Comet” (yeah, right), was supposed to be this great 3rd-to-4th magnitude spectacle.  That same Thursday at the dark site, I had looked at a chart to locate it, and saw that it formed almost a perfect equilateral triangle with the Pleiades and Aldebaran.

Naked eye, I was just able to spot it visually as a tiny little fuzz spot, but only using averted vision, even under the dark site’s Bortle 4/5 sky.  However, if I hadn’t known precisely where to look from the chart, I would never have even seen it, let alone been able to find it.  10×50 binoculars didn’t do much to improve the view, but it was definitely there.  It was just a gray smudge, but it was easily viewable with direct vision through the binocs.  There was no tail to be seen, which is what I really wanna see when I see a comet.  The tail at least gives the impression of motion.  A comet with no tail?  Meh.

On Saturday, the DAS had its monthly Open House.  The moon was almost at quarter phase, and at 7:30-8pm, it was still very high in the sky.  The moon was terrific, by the way – Dan, a DAS member, had his 6″ refractor out and the Straight Wall was stunning.  Plus, the terminator had just passed by Plato, and the shadows from the rim of Plato made an incredible pattern stretching across Plato’s floor.  Really great stuff on the moon.

But, from the middle of Denver, with the moon out, a view of the comet through a C5 only gave the impression of an exceedingly faint globular cluster.  Even through Chamberlin Observatory’s 20-inch refractor, the comet was definitely not wowing anyone.  The comet’s surface brightness is exceedingly low.

With all the media buzz over the “Christmas Comet”, I was actually expecting something pretty glorious.  Something on the order of the incredible Hale-Bopp from just over 20 years ago.  Ah yes, once again, I’m shocked, shocked to learn that this is yet another case of media overhype of an astronomical event.  And I fell for it yet again.  What is wrong with me?  🙂

Wirtanen certainly ain’t no Hale-Bopp.  The best word to use to describe it is “underwhelming”.  Womp, womp indeed.

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4 thoughts on “December 17, 2018: Holy Geminids! and Comet 46P/Wompwomp

  1. Wow. I’m glad you had such a great view of the meteors. For me it was just loads of rain on the windows. I’m really envious, and I’m glad you had such a great experience with it.

    I hear what you’re saying about the comet. It’s hard to tamp down these impossible expectations that the various media outlets create. People go out expecting enormous lights in the sky, when the difference is usually much more subtle. I often wonder which is worse: not saying anything at all, or saying something that’ll inadvertently cause someone to look away in frustration?

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  2. I totally struggle with that dilemma as well. But I come down on the side of not saying anything at all . . . or at least not hyping it to the moon. Oops, I meant hyping it to the supermoon. 🙂

    I think that when “regular people” hear all the hype, go out to check for themselves, and then are disappointed, they feel lied to, betrayed, etc. And what we certainly don’t need right now is less trust in the media due to actual “fake news” as opposed to “fake fake news”.

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  3. It had a weak tail going off in a northerly direction. I saw it about two weeks ago from a village called ruswarp near Whitby in north east England, pretty dark there.it was just naked eye and easily visible using my 8×25 travel monocular.

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